September 30, 2011
If you want to get a sense of how desperate the Postal Service is, don’t look at how big its deficit is. Instead, check out how the Postal Service attorneys responded to the testimony of a small-town mayor in Iowa who took the time to testify to the Postal Regulatory Commission about the Postal Service’s plan to close thousands of post offices, including his.
The USPS lawyers try to take apart the mayor’s testimony by posing twenty-three questions intended to show the bias, false assumptions, and lack of evidence in what the mayor said. But the Postal Service’s “interrogatories” do not address the real substance of the testimony. Instead, they are petty, snide, and disrespectful, and they reveal more about the mentality of the Postal Service than they do about the credibility of the mayor’s testimony.
Donny Hobbs is the mayor of Lohrville, Iowa, in Calhoun County. He has four children and a degree in music, and his day job is doing design work for an internationally renowned pipe organ builder. A few months ago, when Iowa was hit hard by news of hundreds of potential post office closings, Mayor Hobbs helped organize a group called Iowans for Post Office Services (IPOS) — elected officials and community leaders representing fifty towns and cities in Iowa as well as various community organizations like Iowa League of Cities.
Mayor Hobbs doesn’t get paid for the many hours he spends on IPOS, and it’s easy to see he put a lot of time and effort into writing his testimony to the PRC. It’s a sixteen-page document that reflects the thoughts and feelings of thousands of people in Iowa, as well as the rest of rural America.
The testimony does a beautiful job covering a wide range of topics: how much the Postal Service’s reputation will be damaged by closing post offices to save a very small amount of money; how the Village Post Office is a totally inadequate replacement for a real post office and how it would certainly not provide “the maximum degree of service” required for rural communities by the law; how seniors depend on a nearby post office, especially in bad weather; how many people depend on the post office for medicine; how small businesses would be strained if they needed to take time to drive to another town to do postal business; how the idea of letter carriers as “Post Offices on Wheels” won’t work because people can’t stand at their mailbox waiting for the carrier to show up; how much economic development depends on having a post office in the town; how the post office is the “heart and soul” of a rural town; how people meet and chat and make plans for the community while they’re at the post office; how proud people are of their post office; and how closing thousands of post offices, instead of helping to bind the country together, will end up “dividing the nation asunder.”
The Postal Service might have welcomed the testimony with a gracious “thank you” and tried listening to a first-hand account of someone who really knows what a post office means to a small town. Instead, the lawyers for the Postal Service go on the offensive and produce five pages of legal interrogatories that attempt to discredit the testimony. The lawyers only end up discrediting the Postal Service — no easy task at this stage of the game.
September 27, 2011
Photo credits and more news: Philadelphia, Hackensack; Salina; Flint; Colorado Springs; Toledo; Flint; Palm Beach; Jersey City; Youngstown; Bismarck; Duluth; Clanton AL; Rochester; Fargo; Pasadena, Greenville, Augusta; Dayton; Washington; San Diego; Woodbury MN, Tacoma WA.
Rally in New York City
September 27, 2011
September 26, 2011
The Postal Service is in the process of closing some 3,650 post offices as part of its Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI). The first of them will close by the end of the year, and it will take a few more months to work through the list. But the Postal Service is already looking ahead, and word now comes that 4,000 more post offices will soon be on the chopping block.
It came out a couple of weeks ago in an interview Deputy Postmaster General Ron Stroman did with MyPrintResource.com. (Thanks to Dead Tree Edition for catching this.) Stroman was discussing the RAOI, and then he said this: “After we finish that review, we will probably pick up another 4,000 that we will review.” (Stroman’s remark comes at 2:00 into the video.)
We've known for a while that the Postal Service wants to close 16,000 post offices over the next six or seven years, but this is the first we've heard of a new list coming after the RAOI. Stroman didn’t mention in the interview that the Postal Service is also working on yet another list of 727 post offices that had been initiated for closure before the RAOI list came out. Plus, about 230 post offices have already closed over the past year. So we’re looking at nearly 8,500 post office closings over the next couple of years — well on a pace to reach 16,000 closings by 2017.
The Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) has asked the Postal Service about its future plans, presumably concerned that in focusing only on the RAOI list, now under consideration for an Advisory Opinion, the PRC is just seeing a piece of the overall plan. James Boldt, the man running the RAOI, told the PRC in testimony on Sept. 8, 2011, that “future plans will be developed after the Postal Service has absorbed the lessons from the RAOI,” but he did not elaborate.
Pressed further by Commissioners, Boldt was assisted by USPS attorney Michael Tidwell, who jumped into the conversation to explain: “The Postal Service's view from the start has been very clear. We have developed an initiative that involves 3,650 facilities that is being examined in this docket. If, and when, the Postal Service determines that it wants to cast the net at another 3,650 facilities, it recognizes: (1) it has to move forward to the Board of Governors to seek authority to do so; and (2) if a conclusion is made that that initiative itself might involve a nationwide service change, the Postal Service recognizes it has obligations under Section 3661,” and it will ask for another Advisory Opinion from the PRC. (Testimony Transcript, p. 356-7).
The bottom line: The Postal Service is only just beginning to close post offices. There will be one list after another, and the post office closings will go on and on and on. The Postal Service is "segmenting" its overall plan into smaller pieces in order to make the impacts seem less significant and to avoid provoking an even bigger public outcry than we're witnessing.
On Tuesday, September 27, from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (local time), members of the four employee unions of the United States Postal Service will join forces with members of our communities to send a message to the nation and its Congress.
• American Postal Workers Union
• National Association of Letter Carriers
• National Postal Mail Handlers Union
• National Rural Letter Carriers' Association
September 25, 2011
Remember a time before envelopes when you just folded the sheets of your letter, added a touch of sealing wax, and dropped it off at the post office? Remember when there were no stamps, and it was the person at the receiving end who paid the postage? Remember when the cost for mailing a letter depended on how far it was going, when there were even posts along the post roads to mark distances, and when it could take several weeks for a letter to go from Philadelphia to Boston? Remember when almost every post office was a "village post office" — a counter in a general store or tavern where some postal business could be conducted?
Ah, the good old days. The really good old days — the Post Office of the 18th century.
This is an important week in US postal history. It was on September 22, 1789, that the newly formed Federal Government established the Post Office and authorized the appointment of a postmaster general. A few days later, on September 26, the nation’s first postmaster general took office. And it wasn’t Ben Franklin. His name was Samuel Osgood.
Franklin is rightly known as the country’s first postmaster general, but that was before 1776 and the formation of the federal government. There had been a postal system in the country since colonial days, but it suffered from inefficiency and deficits, at least until Franklin came along. In his service to the English crown as postmaster general for over two decades, Frankln improved service and put the system in the black for the first time.
Despite his achievements, Franklin was dismissed from his post in 1774 because of his involvement with revolutionaries. A year later, the Continental Congress established the Post Office and appointed him the country’s first postmaster general. So we really have two "first" postmaster generals — Franklin before the Revolutionary War, and Osgood under the Constitution. How the Post Office ended up in the Constitution is another story.
During the Revolutionary War, military leaders and elected officials could see that a robust postal system was crucial to facilitating communication and coordinating their wartime efforts. Postal workers were even exempted from military service. In 1778, the Founding Fathers wrote into the Articles of Confederation a clause granting the United States Congress the “sole and exclusive right and power of . . . establishing and regulating post offices from one state to another, throughout all the United States.” The clause also empowered the post offices to charge postage “to defray the costs” of running the system.
Over the next few years, the value of the postal system to the young democracy became even more apparent. The Post Office truly was "binding the country together." The Post Office helped elected representatives and their constituents keep in contact, and through its distribution of newspapers, it enabled Americans to stay informed about political issues. Delivering newspapers was so important, in fact, that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson advocated reduced rates or even free delivery. Madison also believed that “by providing the citizenry with the means to monitor its elected representatives, the postal system could help to check the abuse of power” (Christopher Shaw, Preserving the People's Post Office).
In 1789, the “postal clause” of the U.S. Constitution — Article 1, section 8 — gave the Congress power over the Post Office. The passage states that the Congress “shall have the power . . . to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.” The clause was a subject of controversy from the very beginning, and three years later, when Congress debated the Post Office Act of 1792, it was about whether or not Congress could and should delegate to the postmaster general its power to establish post offices and post roads. The Senate wanted to give that role to the postmaster general, but the House said no, the Congress should retain its power.
September 24, 2011
The Postal Service is well on its way in the closure process for most of the post offices in the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI). Many of these 3,652 post offices have already had a public hearing, and questionnaires are being distributed and other data gathered as part of the process. Some of these post offices could start closing before the end of the year. But not all of them will close — a few have already been spared.
On September 21, 2011, the Postal Service gave the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) an updated list of the post offices being considered for closure as part of the RAOI. The list included some 83 post offices that were no longer under consideration for closure as of August 31, 2011.
The Postal Service did not provide an explanation why each office was removed, perhaps because it didn’t want to provide ammunition to communities engaged in fighting closures. But it looks like one of the factors for removing a post office from the study list was the distance to another post office. Thirty-one of the 83 no longer under consideration for closure are in Alaska, where it can be a couple of hundred miles or more to the next-nearest post office. (Here’s one of the many news articles that came out about the Alaska post offices.)
Five other post offices were removed because they were “annexes erroneously included” on the original list — they weren't supposed to be on it in the first place. As for the 47 post offices not in Alaska, it’s not at all clear why they were removed or what the implications are for all those post offices still on the list.
We've mapped the post offices removed from the RAOI and complied a list that’s easier to use than the original USPS list. The Postal Service’s complete list with those marked as off list is here. The more user-friendly list with links is here. A map view is here.
UPDATE: The Postal Service provided a new list on Nov. 2, here.
September 24, 2011
Remember Nader's Raiders, the group of young activists who went to Washington in the 60s and 70s (and beyond) to work with Ralph Nader in his fight for consumer protection, a clean environment, and accountable government? Among the hundreds of publications that came out of Nader's Center for Responsive Law are two of the best books written about the post office and the struggle between those who would privatize it and those fighting to maintain it as a public institution.
The first was The Postal Precipice: Can the U.S. Postal Service Be Saved? by Kathleen Conkey (1983), and it was followed by Preserving the People's Post Office by Christopher W. Shaw (2006). These two books are required reading for anyone who wants to understand the push to privatize the post office and why it needs to be resisted.
Nader has been a long-time advocate for the “people’s post office,” and he wrote the prefaces for both books (an excerpt is here). For years now, Nader has been advocating for the creation of a postal consumer action group that would represent the interests of citizens at the table of postal stakeholders.
This past August, Nader’s Center for Responsive Law entered the postal fray yet again by joining the Advisory Opinion process being conducted by the Postal Regulatory Commission on the USPS plan to close thousands of post offices. You can see their “interrogatories” posed to the Postal Service, along with the USPS responses, in the PRC docket, here.
This week Nader wrote a letter to Senator Joseph Lieberman, Chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Congressman Darrell Issa, Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The letter explains how the “crisis” we’re hearing so much about has been totally manufactured and could be easily corrected by Congressional action. Readers of “Save the Post Office” are familiar with the story, but Nader’s letter does a very good job going over the numbers and explaining the details about how postal workers have overpaid billions of dollars into pension plans and their retiree health care plan.
Nader explains how the Postal Service has overpaid into the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) by as much as $75 billion, as well as overpaying into the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) by about $6.8 billion (as of FY 2009). Combined, these overpayments amount to about $82 billion. If a significant portion of these overpayments were returned to the Postal Service, the crisis would vanish in a flash.
September 23, 2011
The retail and delivery operations of the post office have been "coupled" for 150 years, ever since the post office started delivering the mail. Now the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) is telling us that these operations should be "decoupled." It's not that the two aren't getting along — it's just that the Postal Service could save some money and provide better service if the two functions were divorced from each other. It would be even better if they both moved out of the post office altogether.
It's all explained in a new OIG report entitled “Retail and Delivery: Decoupling Could Improve Service and Lower Costs.” The study examines how the Postal Service and its customers would be better off if retail functions — the selling of postal products that takes place at the front of the post office — were separated from the delivery functions that take place in the back, where letter carriers prepare their mail for delivery, trucks are loaded and unloaded, and various administrative tasks are carried out. The separation would initially be “managerial” — a matter of who does what work — but it would also become a “spatial” issue — where the work gets done.
The title says decoupling “could” save money and improve service, but the report is about how decoupling would make things better. It's not an objective analysis of the pros and cons of different forms of separation and integration. When the report mentions the logic behind the traditional "coupling" arrangement of retail and delivery within the post office, it’s only to say how outmoded this is. The report is basically an advocacy document with a not-so-hidden agenda — divide up the jobs that get done in the post office, outsource the work, close the post office, and move the Postal Service further along the path of privatization. This agenda shapes the entire study.
For example, the report says decoupling would improve retail because it would give the Postal Service “more flexibility to respond to changing customer needs for service.” That’s a reference to the Postal Service’s endlessly repeated claim that people prefer doing postal business at retail outlets or online rather than at post offices. The OIG report doesn’t mention that the Postal Service has been pushing people in that direction by reducing service at post offices and expanding them at the alternatives.
The report says that with decoupling, retail would improve because it would receive more managerial attention. To make this point, it reminds people of all those times they’ve been standing in line at the post office while there are workers in the back doing something else. The report doesn’t explain that this is often the manager’s decision and not the clerk’s. It’s a problem that could easily be remedied by having headquarters tell management to give customer service a higher priority. You don’t need to radically transform the whole system with this “decoupling” idea to make that happen, but better customer service might make people value post offices, and that’s not part of the plan.
The report acknowledges that in some cases, like small rural post offices, decoupling is not practical, and it also acknowledges that there are some benefits to the traditional system, where clerks can do different things, depending on the workflow in the office — sometimes doing retail, sometimes helping with the work in the back. The report says this issue could be addressed with a “reasonable increase in work hour flexibility.” That’s means use more part-time workers, which the report mentions parenthetically: “If reasonably increased workforce flexibility is allowed (by allowing some retail clerks to work a half day, for example), the business need for coupling could effectively disappear.” Don’t you just love that? Allowing some retail clerks to work a half day. As if there are thousands and thousands of postal workers who are just dying to work half time for half-time pay.
Decoupling would also provide, says the report, “significant opportunities for space consolidation savings.” In other words, decoupling is not just about who does what work — it’s about space, i.e., post offices. As the report explains: “Decoupling could occur first organizationally, with separation of managerial responsibility, and subsequently, it could potentially support physical separation where it made business sense.”
A post office is already separated spatially into retail at the front and everything else in the back, so what the report means by this is that these functions don’t need to take place in the same building. The Postal Service discovered the benefits of "space consolidation" long ago. How many times have we seen the Postal Service consolidate the carriers and other workers from a large downtown post office to another postal facility, typically an annex on the outskirts of town? It can make sense — the facility is probably closer to the highway, access is less congested, there’s more parking for workers, etc.
September 21, 2011
ABOUT THE VIDEO
In 1975 I was playing in Tanya Tucker's backup band for the grand opening of the Super Bowl in New Orleans. In 1979 I was mopping the floor while Tanya's song played on the radio at the Glencoe, IL, Post Office where I was a casual. Though I didn't imagine it at the time, I wound up working in two offices for three tours of duty and managed to accumulate twenty-six years as a letter carrier, still playing music every opportunity I could.
In the course of my time at the Wheeling, IL, Post Office I wrote some articles for the union newsletter of Branch 4739, National Association of Letter Carriers, known as The Love Letter. "There Used to be a Post Office Here" was written over ten years ago for The Love Letter, and only slightly updated for "Save the Post Office."
I don't know if my postal managers would share this sentiment, but I'm glad I had a chance to work for the Post Office and with some people for whom I have tremendous respect. I'm also glad that I continue to play music as Kent Rose, The Voice that Remembers. But at the Post Office, I will always be Kent Rosenwald.
September 19, 2011
Among the issues being examined by the Postal Regulatory Commission as part of its Advisory Opinion on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) plan to close 3,652 post offices is how far away the nearest post office is to each post office being studied for closure. In its initial presentation to the PRC, the Postal Service provided a chart showing typical distances from one post office to another.
The chart was problematic for several reasons: It reflected data for about 13,500 post offices that earn less than $100,000 a year in revenue, rather than illustrating data for the 3,652 post offices actually being considered for closure in the RAOI. But more important, the chart was based not on actual driving miles, but geographic distance — as the crow flies. It wasn't hard to imagine that driving distances would be much greater. (All this was discussed in an earlier blog post, "The Smartest Guys in the Room.")
Many of the questions posed to the Postal Service as part of the Advisory Opinion have involved efforts to get better data about these distances. On September 7, 2011, the Postal Service finally submitted to the PRC a 78-page document with data showing the actual driving distance to the nearest post office for each of the offices on the RAOI list. (The Postal Service also submitted a related document on driving mileage, but it is "non-public.") The document, however, was in a format that made it very difficult to analyze (a pdf instead of a spreadsheet). The PRC has requested that the data be resubmitted in more usable form.
In the meantime, we have done some preliminary analysis of the data. Because of the formatting issue, it was not possible to extract data for all 3,652 post offices, but we have been able to gather data for almost 3,100 of them. Here's what we've found:
First, the average driving distance to another post office is nine miles, and the median is 6.4 miles — considerably more than what was suggested by the chart submitted by the Postal Service, which made it look as if most post offices were five miles or less from another post office.
This table compares the numbers on the chart originally presented by the Postal Service, which used geographic distance for 13,500 post offices, with the new data provided by the Postal Service, which contains driving miles for the post offices on the RAOI list:
September 18, 2011
The APWU has launched Phase of its television ad campaign, in conjunction with the National Association of Letter Carriers and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union, APWU President Cliff Guffey announced. Spots will air on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News. The ad will run for approximately two months. [full story]
September 18, 2011
Over the past couple of months, some 4,400 communities have learned that their post office may soon close. Some post offices that had been previously initiated for closure studies are closing right now. Many communities have received their "final determination" notices saying the post office will close in a few weeks. Many others are in the middle of the “public comment” period, and they are having meetings with postal management, filling out surveys, doing petition drives, and holding rallies. In late July, when it announced its closure plans, the Postal Service said it would take about ten weeks to get the process going for all the post offices on its two lists. In just a few weeks, then, the process will be well underway for all 4,500 communities, and by the end of the year, we could see post offices closing by the hundreds.
Some of these communities are small rural towns with populations numbering in the hundreds, while others are urban neighborhoods where the post office might serve thousands of people. If the average of these post offices served just 250 patrons, over a million people are looking at losing their post office. You may be one of them.
Fighting the Postal Service when it has its sights set on your post office is no easy task. And it may seem futile too. Many people have complained that it felt like the Postal Service had decided to close the post office even before the community was invited to weigh in. You will also have the right to appeal the Postal Service’s decision to close your post office, but those appeals haven’t been having much luck either.
Despite the odds against them, most communities are putting up a fight. Below are some suggestions about what you can do to maybe, just maybe, keep your post office open.
Much of the following comes from an excellent guide called the Red Book, put out by the National Association of Postmasters of the U.S. (NAPUS). So it’s a good idea to start by looking at the Red Book, which you can find here.
By the way, if you have been through this process or know something about it, please send a note using the “contact” link and we’ll add your suggestions to this page.
Learn the procedures
The first thing to do is learn about the Postal Service’s procedures for closing a post office. The process is described in the Code of Federal Regulations associated with Title 39. It’s called 39 CFR part 241, and you can find it here. The Postal Service also provides its employees with a handbook called the USPS Discontinuance Guide.
The Red Book does an excellent job explaining the process, but if you spend some time with these additional documents, you’ll get an even better idea of what’s ahead and what role your community can play at each stage of the process. The procedures may seem overly complex and difficult to understand, but that could work to your advantage, since all that complexity means it’s easy for USPS management to make mistakes along the way. Knowing the procedures will help you notice when the Postal Service makes missteps, and, should it decide to close your post office, you can note these in your appeal petition to the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC).
So there's no need to wait until you receive a “final determination” notice to start working on an appeal. You could be taking notes, building your case, and watching for Postal Service errors from the very beginning. Plus, if you do need to file an appeal, it will save a lot of time if you’ve been working on it from the beginning. You could even read a couple of appeals dockets (available on the PRC website — just scroll down on this page to the list of dockets that begin with A-2011) to see how the end-stage of the process works. Knowing where things are heading will help you get it right from the beginning.
NAPUS also has retired postmasters available who can help explain the process and advise you on how to make your case to the Postal Service. You can contact NAPUS for help finding one here.
The steps in the process are as follows:
September 17, 2011
The Postal Service announced this week that it will be studying 251 mail processing facilities for consolidation. That's in addition to about 40 plants that had already been initiated for study prior to the announcement. If all of these plants were to close, it would reduce the "area mail processing" (AMP) network by over half.
The Postal Service provided only the names and cities for the plants under study, so we've prepared a "new, improved" list that contains complete addresses and maps for all the locations, except a few for which it was impossible to determine which facility the Postal Service was referring to. A list view is here and a map view is here.
The list contains 215 facilities that are owned by the Postal Service, and 36 that are leased. The total amount being paid out on these leased properties is $15.7 million a year, for an average of about $440,000 per property annually. Add in a few million for utility costs, maintenance expenses, and so on, for all 251 facilities, and maybe we're in the ballpark of $20 million a year.
The Postal Service says it expects to save $3 billion a year from this consolidation effort, so it looks like less than 1% of that would come from savings in rent and building costs, and over 99% will come from the savings in salary and benefits for the 35,000 postal workers who will be losing their jobs. It's hard to see how that even that many positions would save $3 billion — that's $85,000 per worker. Even with those unbelievably generous benefits postal workers get (which we are reminded of on a daily basis), it's hard to see how the numbers add up. Perhaps even more than 35,000 workers will be losing their jobs.
The Postal Service will also need to dispose of 215 facilities, which could bring in a considerable sum, if these buildings prove desirable on the open market. These days, that's hard to say. But it looks like we're talking about over 90 million square feet, and at, say, an average of $5 a square foot, the Postal Service could bring in nearly half a billion dollars by selling off all this property. But that's a lot of property to dump on an already depressed market, and it's not as if we're dealing with prime real estate — most of the facilities are big warehouse-type spaces on the outskirts of town.
The Postal Service seems to be focusing almost entirely on cutting its costs, and saving $3 billion a year is certainly considerable. But we haven't heard much about how slowing down delivery times — which the Postal Service acknowledges will be the result of consolidating the processing network — will impact revenues. First-class mail accounted for about $34 billion in 2010. If that amount were to drop 10% as a result of declines in service, it would wipe out the entire $3 billion in savings.
The Postal Service seems to be sending itself into a downward spiral that could be impossible to stop. It's not the "crisis" of the current deficit that should be feared — as everyone reading this already knows, the deficit is almost entirely due to overpayments to retirement funds. What people should really be worrying about is how continuous declines in service — the inevitable result of closing thousands of post offices, cutting the workforce by a third, and "optimizing" the processing network — will lead to yet further declines in revenue, which will, in turn, necessitate even more cuts, which will cause further erosions in service.
This is a good way to put yourself right out of business. The real mystery is whether the leaders of the Postal Service are driving off the cliff simply because they are bad drivers or if they are being directed to crash the postal system so that FedEx, UPS, and others can pick up the pieces for privatization.
(The USPS list of 251 facilities being studied for consolidation is here; the "Save the Post Office" version of the list is here; the Postal Service's list of facilities already under study or implementation (most of which are not on the list of 251) is here. The statistics about the rents and square footage comes from the USPS website — leased properties and owned properties.)
(Image credit: downward spiral)
September 14, 2011
The Wall Street Journal has a report today about how the Postal Service is in the process of selling off its historic post offices. Maybe someone at the Journal has been reading "Save the Post Office." We've been bemoaning the sale of these historic post offices for months now, and there have been stories in the Guardian in the UK and Liberation in France, so it’s nice to see the American press finally taking note of this travesty. Since the WSJ is subscription only, here’s the gist, with a few additional details. For more, check out our pages on the New Deal post offices and on other historic post offices that have been sold or may be sold soon.
Most post offices are housed in leased spaces, but the Postal Service owns about 8,000 post offices, as well as a thousand empty lots and modular buildings. Some 2,500 of these post offices are either on the National Register of Historic Places or eligible to be listed due to their historical significance. About 2,000 of them were constructed before World War II, and a thousand of them were built by the New Deal in the years 1933 to 1943.
The New Deal post offices are among the jewels of the nation’s architectural treasures, and it’s a crime against the American people that they are being sold off so shamelessly by the government agency entrusted with protecting them. (That's not in the WSJ article.) Paid for with tax dollars and owned by the people of the country, these federal buildings are now being sold to the highest bidder and turned into real estate offices, restaurants, high-end clothing stores, and the showroom for a bag company.
According to Dallan Wordekemper, Postal Service historian, about 800 of the New Deal post offices contain priceless sculptures and murals, often prized more than the buildings themselves. Although often mistakenly identified as WPA murals, they were produced under the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts. The Postal Service makes an effort to protect the murals, but there have been horror stories about murals gone missing and discovered years later in the basement somewhere. (Not mentioned in the WSJ article.)
The Postal Service has already sold $140 million in post offices and other property so far in fiscal year 2011, according to ubiquitous USPS spokesperson Sue Brennan. As the Journal reports, “Postal officials say it's unclear how many of these historically significant post offices will be sold, but many communities are already starting to see the for-sale signs go up. ” The article cites several that have been discussed in blog posts on this website: Palm Beach FL, Westport CT, Pinehurst NC, Northfield MN, Cheraw SC, and Venice CA.
The two lists of post offices being studied for closure — the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) list of 3,652 and the non-RAOI list of 727 more — contain over fifty post offices built before 1945. But there are many more historic post offices in danger that aren’t showing up on closing lists. That’s because the Postal Service can sell a post office building, as it did in Palm Beach FL or Westport CT, and then move the post office to another location. That does not count as a “closing,” and the Postal Service does not need to go through the normal closure process. There is nothing stopping the Postal Service from selling off all 2,500 of its historic post offices. Absolutely nothing. (None of that is in the WSJ article.)
If you want a better sense of just how insane this whole thing is, consider Palm Beach, Florida, where the Postal Service, as the WSJ reports, sold a magnificent New Deal post office to real-estate mogul Jeff Greene for $3.7 million. Greene, if the name's not familiar, is "the Reluctant Billionaire" who somehow figured out how to make $800 million trading the credit default swaps that helped plunge the country into recession. He ran for the Senate in Florida, but didn't get past the primary. An admirer of the Palm Beach post office since he was a kid, Greene appreciates the lobby's "wonderful woodwork and marble, and ornate elements," his architect tells us. When renovations are completed, the building will become home to Greene's real estate company — Florida Sunshine Investments. The Postal Service, in the meantime, has moved the post office to a strip mall where it’s renting space and reportedly paying — get this — $10,000 a month. (Not mentioned in the WSJ article.)
September 14, 2011
One of the main problems with closing thousands of post offices is that the cost and pain are not evenly distributed among the population of the country. Some people get hurt more than others. As with most government cutbacks, it’s the poor who get hurt the most. They’re the ones who live in low-income urban neighborhoods and hardscrabble rural areas where most of the closings are taking place.
While a few affluent communities may lose their post offices, they represent a small percentage of the total slated for closure, and when the well-to-do lose a post office, it’s not such a hardship — they’ve got the time and gas money to drive a few miles to another post office in their nice car.
But it’s not just the poor who get hurt. Think about all the middle-class people who own small businesses that depend on the post office, the retired seniors who walk to a post office, the people of all incomes who look to the post office as a source of community identity and social fabric, and all the postal workers who will be out of a job.
Let's think a little more about who suffers when thousands of post offices close. The Postal Service certainly doesn't seem to be thinking about it.
People without Internet
All you hear from the media is that the Postal Service is closing post offices because everyone is doing email and paying bills online. But it’s not everyone.
According to the US Census for 2010, 31% of U.S. households have incomes of less than $30,000 a year. And according to Pew Internet, 60% of these households do not have broadband at home, and almost half don’t use the Internet at all. That means 19% of the country’s households do not have home access to the Internet because they cannot afford it or because they live in a low-income or rural area where there’s no broadband available. That number may actually be larger, since a third of the households earning $30,000 to $50,000 don’t have home broadband either.
That 19% means over 22 million households don’t have home Internet. If the Postal Service closes 4,000 post offices — one out of eight — how many of those 22 million households will find themselves without a nearby post office and without Internet? Given that many of the post offices on the list are in low-density areas, let’s just say one out of twenty. So we’re talking about over a million households near or below the poverty level ($22,000 for a family of four) with no Internet and no local post office. Those are some of the people who will be hurt most by the closing of thousands of post offices.
Poor people without Internet can’t just go online for email, bill paying, and news. These are the people who go to the post office to buy a money order to pay the electric bill. These are the people who will feel it the most when they have to put some extra gas in the tank to drive to a post office three or five or ten miles away, or who have to take an extra bus ride across town to the post office that’s still open. These are the people who experience the post office as a real place in the real world, not just an abstraction they read about in the virtual world of Internet news.
The Postal Service has not broken down its lists of post offices being studied for closure in terms of population density. In fact, it says it’s not looking at census data as a criterion — it doesn’t want to consider whether the area served by a post office is low-income, has a higher-than-average minority or senior population, or anything else that might suggest the Postal Service is discriminating against a particular part of the population. It says the relevancy of such data is too hard to determine, since no can know how many people in each census group are using the post office, and in what ways.
Nonetheless, even a cursory look at the closing maps and news items about impending closures reveals that a large portion of the post offices slated for closure are in rural areas. Three thousand of the 3,650 on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) closing list have annual revenues of less than $27,000, and almost all of these are probably rural. And there are also many small rural post offices on the non-RAOI list of 727 slated for closure.
Say 3,000 small rural post offices close, and say these post offices serve towns with an average population of a thousand people — about 400 households (the census says the average household is 2.6 people). When their post office closes, those 400 households will need to drive to a post office in another town. Since we’re talking rural, the nearest post office could easily be five, ten, or twenty miles away, but to be conservative, let’s say five. It’s hard to figure how often each household will need to go to the post office, and how many of those trips will be an extra trip as opposed to “we were going to Optimo anyway.” But let’s say that each household needs to make an extra ten-mile round trip twice a month.
If you do the math, it comes to nearly 300 million miles, and $50 million in fuel costs — over $40 a year per household. In other words, the Postal Service, in its efforts to save $200 million, is just transferring a large portion of its cost savings to rural Americans, who are going to dig deeper into their wallets to buy gas.
Of course, extra driving time and fuel costs are just part of the impact of a post office closure on a small town. What hurts even more is the thing that can’t be quantified — the way a post office serves a social function in the community. It’s a social hub and a source of community pride and identity. That’s why in so many news reports about post office closings, the people in small towns say that if you close the post office, you’re putting a nail in the coffin of the town. And they mourn the loss of the post office as if were a member of the family.
September 11, 2011
Trying to correct all the bogus postal stories being put out by the media and think-tanks is like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole, and it’s impossible to come out ahead. One day it’s the Congressional Research Service publishing a flawed report on the post office, then it’s the New York Times, and who can keep up with the Washington Post?
Today comes a piece in the International Business Times (IBTimes), “What's Wrong With the U.S. Postal Service? Five Things to Know.” The piece is less than a thousand words, so how much can it get wrong? Turns out, nearly everything. Here are the five things “wrong with the US Postal Service” and the many things wrong with the article:
1. “Faster-than-expected sales declines due to evaporation of First Class mail.” Like just about every news report, the piece repeats the line coming from L’Enfant Plaza that the trend toward e-mail and paying bills online “is growing fast, leaving the USPS with a bloated structure trying to downsize — but the agency can't do it fast enough.”
Of course digital technology is impacting the revenues of the Postal Service, but it’s not happening all that fast. The Postal Service, based on research done by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), anticipates first-class mail declining at a rate of 4% over the next ten years (that’s evaporating?), but mail volume overall declining at the more modest rate of 1.5% a year, with many types of mail actually increasing in volume.
But in order to heighten the "crisis" frenzy, the Postal Service keeps reminding everyone that mail volumes have declined over 20% since peak in 2006-2007. And the media keeps saying that it's all due to the internet. McClatchy-Tribute News, for example, is circulating an editorial that says "Electronic communications options — online banking, bill paying, shopping and other services — have caused the volume of postal mail to fall 22 percent since 2006."
Yet in its request for an exigent rate increase last year, the Postal Service said the decline was due two-thirds to the recession, and only one-third to "online diversion." That would mean the internet is responsible for a 7% decline over the past five years — pretty much the 1.5% a year that BCG anticipates for the next ten years.
The internet effect may be even more modest than that. In a July 2011 legal brief filed by the USPS challenging the rejection of the rate increase by the Postal Regulatory Commission, the Postal Service suggested that some of that one-third decline attributed to electronic diversion might actually be related to the recession, and as evidence it pointed out that mail volumes were increasing "even in the face of electronic diversion in the years immediately prior to the Great Recession."
Mail Volume, 2000 - 2020 [source: BCG report, March 2010]
In any case, the Postal Service isn’t talking about downsizing at a rate anything like it's anticipating in volume declines. The Postmaster General says he expects to close 16,000 post offices in six years —that’s over 10% a year — and he wants to reduce the workforce from 645,000 to 425,000 over the next four years — also about 10% a year. That’s seven times faster than the anticipated volume decline of 1.5%.
Or look at it this way: In 1990, mail volume in the US was 155 billion pieces a year, and there were over 843,000 postal workers (career and non-career). In 2015, according to the BCG report, volume will be about where it was in 1990, yet the Postmaster General wants the 2015 workforce to number 425,000 — about half of what it was in 1990. Who is going to process and deliver all that mail?
September 10, 2011
Earlier this week the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) turned down an appeal that would have required the Postal Service to reconsider its decision to close the Goodyear Heights post office in East Akron, Ohio. It was a decision without rhyme or reason, and it does not bode well for future appeals.
The PRC seems just as determined to affirm closing decisions as the Postal Service is to make them, and it doesn’t look like evidence matters. The decision comes first, and gathering and considering information comes later. Just over the past few weeks, the PRC has rejected appeals for Freehold NJ, Fort Smith AR, and Gwynedd PA. Many communities have said they feel like the Postal Service's public hearings are just a sham because the decision has already been made. If the PRC keeps rejecting appeals like this, it’s going to start looking like the whole process is a charade.
The Chairman of the PRC, Ruth Goldway, did not go along with the East Akron ruling, and just as she did with the decisions on Freehold and Fort Smith, she issued a dissenting opinion. Her dissent explains why the Postal Service was wrong to close the Goodyear Heights post office and why her fellow commissioners should have voted to remand the decision back to the Postal Service for further consideration. Goldway’s conclusion is worth quoting in full:
“In my view, the final determination does not offer a rational explanation of why the Postal Service would make a determination to close this facility despite the closing’s negative impact on the Postal Service’s finances. The record also documents lapses in the Postal Service’s provision of adequate notice and meaningful community input to the citizens of East Akron. I find its decision to be arbitrary and capricious as well as unsupported by substantial evidence in the record. Accordingly, I would set aside the Postal Service’s Final Determination and remand the matter back to the Postal Service for further consideration.
“This unsupported decision has the effect of worsening the Postal Service’s immediate financial problems rather than remedying them. I recognize that this facility has already been closed and that restoring service now at that location would add costs to the Postal Service. However, I believe that the Commission’s legal responsibility requires it to make the Postal Service accountable for its actions.”
In order to understand Goldway’s criticism of the Postal Service and her colleagues on the PRC, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning.
The Postal Service decided to study the East Akron post office for closure back in 2009 as part of its Stations and Branches Optimization and Consolidation (SBOC) initiative, an ill-fated effort to close up to 3,100 post offices that ended up with a list of about 140 before being discontinued in the spring of 2010. Patrons of the East Akron post office learned their post office might be closing in July 2009, when they received questionnaires about their postal habits and concerns.
The closing of the East Akron station was opposed not just by the neighborhood patrons but also by the City of Akron itself. In May of 2011, the Postal Service issued a final determination to close the post office, and an appeal was quickly filed with the PRC. In June the city filed a restraining order in federal court to keep the post office open during the appeals process, but the court would not intervene, and the post office closed on June 24.
The appeal notes many problems with the Postal Service’s case: the Postal Service failed to give sufficient consideration to the effects of the closing on seniors, especially those with disabilities; it failed to listen seriously enough to concerns about the inconvenience and safety issues at the post office to which the East Akron station was being consolidated; it failed to post its Final Determination at the East Akron station; it failed to inform customers of their right to appeal; it failed to make the Administrative Record available for inspection (it was later compelled to do so by the PRC); and so on.
For its part, the Postal Service repeated its usual line about the PRC not even having jurisdiction over the case because the East Akron post office is a station, not a main post office, and thus not entitled to an appeal in the first place. The Postal Service then went through all the community’s concerns, and essentially dismissed them as having been considered but outweighed by other concerns, like saving money.
September 7, 2011
In February of 2010, the Urban Institute completed a study entitled “A Framework for Considering the Social Value of Postal Services” that had been commissioned by the Postal Regulatory Commission.” When it presented its findings, the Urban Institute recommended additional research to quantify the benefits it had identified, and the PRC proceeded to commission three contractors to do six studies on various aspects of the social and economic value of the postal system.
The PRC has just released the six studies. They are in many respects exploratory, and the PRC has not commented on them or taken any positions about what they say. Also, as you'll see, not all of the studies are even completed at this point.
Following are some selected passages and a few highlights. The titles to each section are links to the original documents, all available on the PRC website, along with additional materials, here — note the link on the left sidebar. The overview is here. Also, a few months ago "Save the Post Office" did a blog post on the 2010 study, in which those social values associated specifically with post offices were extracted from the study. You can see the list of those benefits here, anbd the entire study is here.
This report discusses how the “massive infrastructure" of the Postal Service "is a unique federal asset that can be called upon during a major disaster or terrorist attack when power and phone lines are useless.” As an illustration, the study reviews what happened after Katrina hit the Gulf states in 2005: “The Postal Service moved quickly to reestablish communications, to reopen lines of commerce, and to deliver government information, relief checks, and medicine to hurricane victims living in makeshift shelters. Its extensive address database enabled it to locate hundreds of thousands of displaced persons so that they could be reunited with their families.” The report observes that “It is unlikely that any other entity could have provided the same level and scope of services as the Postal Service did.”
Because of its value in such cases, “the Postal Service has been assigned responsibilities to prepare for emergencies as though it were a full federal agency (despite the fact that the Postal Service is almost completely funded through its sale of postage, not through federal appropriations).” For example, the Postal Service is a designated deliverer of antibiotics to residents in 72 cities in the event of a biological attack, and were such an attack to occur, the Postal Service could save thousands of lives.
This report begins by making an observation that will no doubt come as a surprise to many readers: “Approximately 9 million households, or one out of every 12 in the United States, are 'unbanked' — people without a banking relationship who rely on high-fee non-bank check cashers or money transfer services. Another 21 million Americans are 'underbanked' — people who have checking accounts but often turn to higher-cost services, such as high-fee international remittances or 300 percent-interest payday loans. A disproportionately large number of these households are minority and low income.”
The report notes that “(a) the federal government recognizes that meeting the needs of the unbanked is a priority—an undisputed benefit to society; and (b) the needs of the unbanked for transaction services are immense and growing, but have not, in general, been a priority of mainstream financial institutions.”
In its conclusion, the report states, “it is fair to conclude that the money transfer services that the Postal Service currently provides to the unbanked and underbanked deliver a distinct, recognizable benefit to society.” The report discusses the types of money orders and money transfer services, and notes that USPS rates are competitive in the industry.
The report observes: “The unbanked avail themselves of the Postal Service's money transfer services to send hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Many prefer to go to a local post office rather than a bank because they consider it conveniently located, familiar, comfortable, and trustworthy. The Postal Service also sets fees at affordable rates. The Postal Service thus benefits society through its provision of safe, convenient, and affordable transaction services to the unbanked.”
In light of the immense need for additional service in this area, the report goes on to discuss several areas where “the Postal Service could dramatically increase the social benefit it provides (and its revenue streams) by expanding its money transfer services to the unbanked.” The report here turns to possibilities like expanding domestic and international money orders to include both hard copy and electronic formats, and offering money transfers for bill payments, similar to Wal-Mart's bill payment services.
“Post offices are conveniently located in every neighborhood across the nation," concludes the report, "and it is likely that many unbanked persons already frequent their post offices for international remittances or other postal services. The Postal Service is also the most trusted federal agency, charges affordable fees, and provides reliable, universal mail service, making it a familiar, non-threatening place for the unbanked to conduct financial transactions.”
September 6, 2011
FROM THE PRC WEBSITE:
Postal Regulatory Commission Publishes Contractor Research Exploring Aspects of Social and Economic Benefits of Postal Services
In February 2010, the Urban Institute completed its study, “A Framework for Considering the Social Value of Postal Services” commissioned by the Postal Regulatory Commission.1 The study identified dozens of ancillary benefits from postal services that result in improvement in the lives of individuals and society. It recommended additional research to quantify the social and economic value of these benefits. In May 2010, the Commission issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) seeking research proposals to quantify the value of social benefits of postal services including those identified by the Urban Institute study. In November 2010, the Commission selected three contractors to perform a total of six studies of various aspects of the social value of postal services to the nation. Activities in support of those studies were completed in late August 2011.
These studies fall into two broad categories. Three of the studies evaluate the value of social benefits that derive from the provision of postal services in ways that complement services provided by the private sector. SJ Consulting Group, Inc. quantified the benefits of the Postal Service’s parcel service to and from rural areas, including a separate analysis of service to Alaska and Hawaii. The Urban Institute researched the role and benefits of the price leadership role of the Postal Service for parcels, expedited services, money orders, and post office boxes. And Joy Leong Consulting, LLC quantified the value of essential services for the unbanked and underbanked populations by the Postal Service.
Three other studies address security and economic benefits that are an indirect result of the Postal Service’s performance of its traditional core mail services. Joy Leong Consulting, LLC quantified the benefits of the Postal Service’s role in disaster response and emergency preparedness. The Urban Institute quantified the economic benefits of post offices by measuring the effect on local employment when a post office is closed in a community. The Urban Institute was also selected to quantify community security and public safety benefits from the presence of letter carriers and post offices. Some work in study design and data collection was done, but for budgetary reasons this last study was not completed.
September 5, 2011
Leave it to the New York Times to ignore the story on the post office for months, and then to put out a front-page piece that gets most of the story wrong. Actually, the piece is fine, but it’s in the wrong part of the paper — it belongs on the Op-Ed page. It's not news. It’s rife with opinion, slant, and misinformation, and its viewpoint is not too far from that of Darrell Issa.
Over the past six months, the Times has published one story about the bills before Congress (July 21), a really lovely piece about a cute post office closing (August 16), a short editorial a few days ago (Aug. 29), and that’s about it.
The August editorial repeated the usual talking points from the Postal Service. It was wrong about why the Postal Service is having problems, and it presented the issues in a slanted way, but it was an editorial, and the Times is entitled to its opinion. But yesterday’s piece appeared as front-page news (for a while, it was even the lead), and it sounds like it was written by the same editorial staff that wrote the Op-Ed piece. It doesn’t help to publish such “news” just as the Senate Homeland Security Committee is about to hold an “emergency hearing” on Tuesday.
The problems start with the headline, “In E-Mail Age, Postal Service Struggles to Avoid a Default.” The thesis is in the title — it’s the shift to e-mail that dooms the Postal Service. The article reiterates this theme several times: ‘As any computer user knows, the Internet revolution has led to people and businesses sending far less conventional mail.” And again a few paragraphs later: “The causes of the crisis are well known and immensely difficult to overcome. Mail volume has plummeted with the rise of e-mail, electronic bill-paying and a Web that makes everything from fashion catalogs to news instantly available.”
Of course e-mail has put a dent in the Postal Service’s revenues, but not as much as the Times and the Postmaster General would have us believe. When the Postal Service requested an exigent rate increase last year, it told the Postal Regulatory Commission that according to its estimates, the decline in revenues suffered over the past couple of years were due two-thirds to the recession, and one-third to “electronic divergence.”
Even that probably over-estimates the impact of the Internet. If you look at the USPS revenues (see page 3 of this CRS report) over the past seven years, the Postal Service has suffered hardly any decline at all — revenues were about $70 billion in 2004 and $67 billion in 2010. There was a big rise from 2004 to 2008 and then a big drop from after that. Did people stop using the Internet when the revenues were going up and only start doing e-mail in 2008? The rise and fall in revenues is obviously tied to the economic cycle, not the Internet.
But that doesn’t suit the argument the Times piece is trying to make. It wants people to think that the revenue decline is permanent, and recessions aren’t permanent (at least they’re not supposed to be, but that’s a different story). So the Times, like the leaders of the Postal Service, blames the “digital revolution” and declares an “emergency” requiring drastic cuts to the workforce, benefits, and post offices, as well as removing the no layoff clause from the union contracts.
These cuts and weakening unions are the real goal, and the rest is just a cooked-up rationale. While it’s a good idea to trim during a recession, you don’t close down half your post offices and get rid of a third of the workforce. The people who want to dismantle the Postal Service — and that includes the Postmaster General — have been playing this game for a long time. For example, check out this discussion of a 1975 GAO report advocating the closing of 12,000 post offices because "electronic funds transfer is increasing in usage and the use of computer terminals for direct exchange of information is on the upswing.”
September 4, 2011
It’s going to be a busy week in our nation’s capital. On Tuesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Joseph Lieberman, will hold an emergency hearing to prevent a USPS shutdown. NAPUS says “this is the first time in recent memory that the full Committee, rather than its Postal Subcommittee, will convene a postal hearing.”
Then on Thursday, the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) will hold its first public hearing on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI), and James Boldt, the man running the operation for the USPS, will be cross-examined by the Commissioners, the Public Representative, and several “intervenors,” like NAPUS and the APWU.
You know it's going to be a big week when the New York Times finally acknowledges there's postal news. Needless to say, the Times gets nearly everything wrong, but what do you expect when the paper has practically ignored the story for months?
In order to bring lawmakers up to speed, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently put out a report entitled “The U.S. Postal Service: Common Questions about Post Office Closures.” It’s a ten-page white paper packed with information about how the closure process works, how many post offices are likely to close, what laws are relevant to closures, and what bills are currently in Congress.
According to its website, “CRS has been a valued and respected resource on Capitol Hill for nearly a century. CRS is well-known for analysis that is authoritative, confidential, objective and nonpartisan. Its highest priority is to ensure that Congress has 24/7 access to the nation’s best thinking.”
That may be so, but there’s a lot of important information missing from the CRS report, so for those lawmakers who haven’t been reading the postal news websites, “Save the Post Office” has prepared a special report we call “Post Office for Dummies.” We’ll go through the sections of the CRS report, one by one.
Chapter One: What is a post office?
When it comes to the U.S. postal system, you can’t take anything for granted. There are actually people who don’t know what a post office is, who never even go to a post office. Many of them are probably in Congress. Even the leaders of the Postal Service don’t seem to know what a post office is.
As the CRS report explains, there are five types of postal facilities: post offices, branches, stations, community post offices (CPO), and contract postal units (CPU). The first three provide the full range of postal services, while the contract units are postal counters in a private business or community building — they provide only some postal services, and they are not staffed by postal workers.
That seems straightforward enough, except for the fact that the Postal Service says a station or a branch is not really a post office, at least not when it comes to the rules for closing one. For years now, the Postal Service has maintained that the law says the full nine-month closing procedure applies only to a main post office, so it’s justified in applying an abbreviated four-month procedure (with no right to appeal) to closing a station or branch. The PRC says that’s nonsense and stations and branches are post offices entitled to the full closing procedure.
If that’s not complicated enough, now the Postal Service wants to open up a contract unit in convenience stores and call it a “Village Post Office,” even though they provide very few postal services, even fewer than a traditional contract postal unit. These places are not post offices. They basically just sell stamps, which you can buy at Wal-Mart, Staples, CVS, and thousands of other places — oh, and they are not post offices either.
So, for those lawmakers who are having trouble with all these distinctions, here’s the thing to keep in mind. If you see a flag flying outside, it’s probably a post office. No flag, probably not. That’s because a post office is not a private business — it’s part of the federal government. And while some members of Congress are going to be saying over and over again that the Postal Service must act “like a business,” a post office is not a business. It’s a government institution, and it serves American citizens, not customers. Also, there’s another way to figure out if what you’re dealing with is a post office or not. Ask if they do local postmarks — it’s a small thing, but it’s what gives a community a sense of identity and it’s what separates post offices from their simulacra. No postmarks at the Village Post Office.
It’s really not that complicated. Most people know what a post office is. It’s just the executives and lawyers in the Postal Service who are confused.
September 3, 2011
It was a bad day for the post office. On Tuesday (Aug. 30), the Postal Regulatory Commission denied an appeal to save the post office in Gwynedd, Pennsylvania. If ever there were a post office that deserved a second chance, this was it, and the PRC’s ruling is very disappointing.
Until it closed in May, Gwynedd had had a post office since 1810, when it was one of only 35 in the state. The post office was located on the grounds of Gwynedd Friends Meeting, a Quaker community, since 1914, and it was housed in a beautiful stone building on picturesque property owned by Foulkeways, a thriving Quaker retirement community, many of whose residents depended on being able to walk to the post office. The community came out strong behind keeping the post office open, and the projected savings for the Postal Service were minimal, if anything. There really was no reason to close the post office in the first place.
The community was fortunate to have a professional writer willing to put in the time to write the appeal documents. Her argument is clear, persuasive, thorough, well researched, and passionate. As hundreds and thousands of post offices close over the coming months and years, it’s not likely that many appeals will be prepared in a more professional manner.
The Postal Service did a poor job with the closing process, beginning to end. There’s evidence, for example, that when it held the public hearing, it had already made the decision to close the post office. People felt that way at the meeting, and then only three days later, the decision to close was forwarded to Headquarters. It turns out that a couple of weeks before the meeting even took place a union postal worker had been contacted by management seeking permission to contract out the work of removing the boxes from the post office.
The appeal observed that the solicitation of public input at the meeting was just “a sham to present the appearance of conforming to required procedure.” The Public Representative (a kind of public defender appointed by the PRC to represent the interests of the general public) concurred: “This sequence of events is consistent with and supportive of a conclusion that the discontinuance procedures were, at best, ‘window dressing.’ Consideration of these facts leaves the impression that public participation in this case was less than meaningful.”
The appeal argued not simply that the Postal Service had conducted the meeting in bad faith. It went through nearly every point made to justify the closing and showed how each was seriously flawed.
The Postal Service, for instance, had emphasized that the revenues at the post office were declining significantly and there would be significant cost savings from closing it. But the evidence was scant. The appeal showed that the revenue decline was due to the recession, the fact that the Postal Service had drastically reduced the hours the post office was open (it closed everyday at 11 a.m.), and the huge road construction project that was making it difficult to get into the post office.
Even with this decline in revenue, the post office was apparently operating in the black, and the supposed savings the Postal Service would achieve by closing it were, according to the appeal, probably inflated. In fact, the appeal suggested that the Postal Service might ultimately lose money by closing the post office rather than waiting for the construction on the road was competed, when business was likely to improve.
A look at the numbers seems to substantiate the claims of the appeal. It’s not easy to say for sure because the Postal Service blacked out page after page of its documents containing revenue information. The Postal Service considers such information “proprietary.”
In any case, we do know that the revenue for fiscal year 2010 came to about $65,000 (down from 2008, when it was $110,000). Expenses came to about $36,000 — $4,650 for rent (less that $400 a month), plus $21,000 for the clerk’s salary, plus miscellaneous costs like benefits. So the post office looks like it was actually bringing in a considerable profit.
Yet somehow the Postal Service figured that without having to pay the rent and the clerk’s salary, it could save $30,000 a year, even though it acknowledged that the clerk was being transferred to another facility and not being laid off. So how the Postal Service came up with cost savings of $30,000 is really a mystery.
The appeal also faulted the Postal Service for presenting an inaccurate record of the public hearing and for refusing to turn over its minutes to the meeting. The Postal Service argued that getting in and out of the Gwynedd location would be permanently hampered and that the alternate location in Spring House shopping center was superior. Residents, however, said that the Gwynedd location would be fine when construction ended, and the other location had numerous problems, including a dangerous left turn and bad parking.
September 1, 2011
The Postal Service has been producing lists of post offices it wants to close since early 2009, and there have been so many, it’s almost impossible to keep them straight. Even the experts can get them mixed up.
For example, earlier this month, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report for Congress about post office closings called "The U.S. Postal Service: Common Questions about Post Office Closures." Its purpose, presumably, was to bring lawmakers up to speed as they prepare to debate various postal reform bills and deal with constituents protesting closings. The CRS report says that besides the 3,652 facilities being studied for closure under the July 2011 Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI), “An additional 728 retail postal facilities are being considered for closure under a 2009 USPS initiative.”
But the 2011 non-RAOI list of 728 facilities has nothing to do with the 2009 initiative. The non-RAOI list consists almost entirely of main post offices, while the 2009 initiative was called the Stations and Branches Optimization and Consolidation (SBOC) initiative, and it focused only on stations and branches. The author of the CRS report should know better — he also wrote a report about the 2009 SBOC — but the report repeats this error three times in the course of its ten pages.
The mistake, though understandable, makes it seem as though the 728 non-RAOI post offices now being studied for closure had somehow been cleared for study by the earlier SBOC initiative, which is not the case. In fact, the Postal Service now says the non-RAOI post offices were never part of any plan. They were "locally generated" in the field and should be considered “ad hoc, isolated” proposals. There never was a plan, so the Postal Service didn’t need to seek an Advisory Opinion about them.
Given the significance of errors like this, it’s important to keep the lists straight. That may be almost impossible, but in hopes of bringing some clarity to the issue, here’s a list of the lists. There may be some mistakes here — which the Postal Service is invited to correct.
1. In early 2009, the Postal Service announced it would be reviewing 3,200 of its 4,800 stations and branches. As noted, this was called the 2009 Stations and Branches Optimization and Consolidation Initiative (SBOC). The Postal Service probably began its push to close post offices with stations and branches because the closing procedures were much easier and faster — four months instead of the nine necessary to close a main post office. (This was before the Postal Service revised its procedures so that beginning July 2011, post offices, stations, and branches will get the same closing procedure — which will now take four and a half months.)
The original list from May 2009 can be seen here, but it’s fairly useless in this form since it provides no station names or addresses. Better versions of the original SBOC list would come out later (see the Dec. 2010 list below).
Over the next several months, the Postal Service revised the SBOC list many times: